The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) is appalled by the outcome of the Depp/Heard defamation trial and has serious concerns for victims and survivors ability to speak out about their experiences.
History of High-Profile Domestic Violence Cases
High-profile cases that shine a light on domestic violence have been a wrongful source of entertainment in this nation for decades now. In 1993, people were making jokes at Lorena (Bobbitt) Gallo’s expense. In 1995, headlines were dominated by the O.J. Simpson trial. In 2002, the murder of pregnant Laci Peterson was breathlessly covered by news networks nationwide. In 2009, there were jokes about Rihanna and Chris Brown after a photograph of her injuries went viral.
NCADV has been here for all those cases. We believe this one is different.
The #MeToo Revolution and #SurvivorSpeaks
In 2017, the #MeToo revolution went viral on social media, eleven years after its inception by Tarana Burke. It marked a cultural watershed moment where victims of abuse felt, for the first time, encouraged to speak out about their experiences with violence at a perpetrator’s hands. NCADV noticed how, over time, the focus of the global conversation was on sexual violence, specifically in the context of workplace harassment, which is why we introduced #SurvivorSpeaks as a hashtag specifically for victims of domestic violence.
What Happened in the Courtroom
During the testimonies of witnesses, including but not limited to Mr. Depp and Ms. Heard, we witnessed in real-time an abuser gaslighting, a common technique used to manipulate others, specifically systems (e.g. law enforcement, courts) into misidentifying a victim for an abuser and an abuser for a victim.
At the heart of domestic violence are dynamics of power and control. Victims of domestic violence can be female, male, or non-binary. The important thing to remember when identifying an aggressor is to focus on who possesses the bulk of power and control between the two partners.
Abusers often use litigation and the courts to continue abusing their victim after the relationship ends. Whether that plays out as “high-conflict divorce,” fighting for custody of shared children, or a defamation lawsuit, the underlying motive is for the abuser to manage and maintain the narrative.
As an organization, we try to have faith in this nation’s systems, including its judges and jurors, to recognize domestic violence and hold an abuser accountable. Clearly, that was not what happened in this courtroom.
What Happened Outside the Courtroom
What spilled out of the courtroom and into the media, including social media, was an abuser exerting control and manipulating the media and a loyal fan base to attack his victim on his behalf. The jury, who was not sequestered, could very well have been influenced by the well-paid and highly-targeted smear campaign in their decisions. But what we witnessed in those conversations was more alarming.
Victim blaming comes in many forms, including criticizing a victim for not acting how you expect them to. While we support the idea that survivors are experts of their own lived experiences with abuse, survivors are not necessarily experts of all survivors lived experiences with abuse. What you would have done, or not done, is immaterial; what matters is believing a victim even if you disagree with how they responded.
What Happens Next
The implications for the future of domestic violence victims and survivors are staggering. In seeing the mocking memes and jokes online, a victim may decide there’s no point to reporting if this is what they will be expected to endure. But victims are not the only ones paying close attention to the trial; abusers are watching, too. Already we are hearing anecdotal reports of abusers threatening their victims -- “If you speak about this to anyone, I’ll pull a Depp on you.”
When people talk about domestic violence, they bring their biases to the conversation along with their words. When these biases overflow into the mainstream conversation, it creates a chilling effect for future victims to report an already under-reported crime.